One Japanese Book You Must Read

You should think twice about taking any advice Ken Seeroi’s got to give. I mean, we’re talking a guy who ditched a sensible life in a first-world country for a freezing, tiny apartment, sleeping on the floor, and eating rice with sticks. So, really? Well, it’s not so bad once I move the shochu boxes and cockroaches out of the way. Just trying to put things into perspective, you know.

How to Take a Bath in Japan

There’s a lot of information on how to do things “right” in Japan. How to take off your shoes, bow, give small gifts, blow your nose, take a bath. It’s like a country that comes with its own instruction manual. Well, guess you wouldn’t want to climb into the tub with your shoes on, so remember that checklist next time you go to the onsen. Don’t think you can just get by with awareness and common sense. That’ll never work. So now that God invented the internet, you can download all the knowledge you’ll ever need. That plus twenty-thousand dollar’s worth of plastic surgery and you’ll fit right in in Japan. You go, Kenny Rogers.

Advice for Japan

But okay, I’ll admit, it’s tempting to give advice about this country, like How to Make Rice or How to Learn Japanese. I blame Japanese people, actually. Hey, I’m just following their example, like when they tell me, Oh no, we brush our teeth like this, We hold our teacups just so, and Oh, we don’t sleep in McDonald’s. Jeez, sorry, I was just deeply meditating. Anyway, it’s a nation with many strange customs. Pass the tofu McNuggets.

Japanese Book Suggestion

So although I try not to give too much advice or “How to Japan”-type stuff, I do have one suggestion. And it’s a bombshell, so to speak. You should really think hard before you take it. Ready? Are you sure? Great, then bombs away. So I recently read this book called Hadashi no Gen, which is excellent for learning Japanese, since it’s got furigana over the kanji. And if you aren’t learning Japanese, well then it’s available in that gaijin language too, as Barefoot Gen. So maybe you can learn you some English.

Okay, let me tell you why it’s a good book, and then why you’re not gonna want to read it.

It’s good because it’s written by a Japanese atomic bomb survivor, and fairly accurately depicts the way Japanese people interact with one another. Lots of slapping and punching, in other words. So you’ll gain insights into actual Japanese life and culture, as opposed to all that Hello Kitty and Maid Cafe stuff. And it’s good because it revolves around a real event—-namely the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—-so you’re reading something based upon history instead of about like some seventeen year-old monkey-boy pirate. Yeah, I’m talking to you, One Piece. All Japanese people have read Hadashi no Gen, and if you have an ounce of interest in Japan, then this should be the book in the middle of your bookshelf.

And now for the Bad News

Now here’s why you don’t want to read it. It has all of the same graphic and disturbing depictions that John Hersey’s Hiroshima had, only with cute, cartoony pictures. If you’ve ever seen the photos and fragments of wreckage from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, well, they pale in comparison to this manga. You get to follow the lively adventures of a funny Japanese schoolboy as he loses all his hair and encounters people with skin melting off their bodies. Believe me, that’s not the worst of it. There’s some seriously mind-scarringly gross stuff in this book, and days after reading it, I was still seeing the ghosts of atomic bomb survivors wandering the streets. You probably don’t want to read it right before bed, is what I’m saying.

So it’s not an easy book to recommend. Still, you know, it’s not like the author just made all that stuff up. History happened—-for better or worse, the U.S. and Japan caused it to happen—-and we have to own it. If anything, the world needs more information, not less, about the effects of nuclear weapons. So if this book brings about that awareness, and causes us to hesitate just a moment longer, then yeah, I guess we should all read it.

Little Boy, then Fat Man

The Second World War, and the nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities, made a deep and lasting impact on the Japanese psyche. Sure, we love to say, Oh look at those wacky Japanese folks, with their crazy game shows and giant teddy bear costumes. But maybe all that way-out stuff is just hiding the pain, like Mr. T’s mohawk and gold chains. Or maybe it’s all unrelated. What am I, a psychologist? Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how the atomic bombs left their mark on the Japanese people, but one thing’s crystal clear—they’ve in no way forgotten. And to even begin understanding Japanese culture, you’d do well to put yourself in the shoes of Barefoot Gen. Although you might want to get someone to read it to you, because I pity the fool who has to look at those illustrations. Manga on Tape, now there’s a great idea. But yeah, for this book, maybe that’d be better.

43 Replies to “One Japanese Book You Must Read”

  1. You provocative Bastard you, I absolutely loved this post and fell in love with your writing all over again (all in 7 paragraphs, Fing unbelievable). Where do you find all of this wisdom and experience? Are you possibly a cousin of the Dalai Lama?? Now I have to get that book and see it for myself! Are you gonna get commisions on this… probably got a kick back deal with the books author. Well, you deserve a good drunk for this post mang, bang bang damn good job!! BTW, I wrote about you on Zooming again Nyah Nyah, but I really really didn’t mean to make you out to be a lazy bum… cough cough, so how about taking J. out with you when you go out some time soon and have a nice long talk! Make nice too! You might be able to share some creative juices with her… OMG, did I just say that….LOL!

  2. Just ordered the book on Amazon for $11.88 new. I also noticed that there are 6 volumes of that book:

    Vol 2, “The Day After”
    Vol 3, “Life After the Bomb”
    Vol 4, “Out of the Ashes”
    Vol 5, “The Never-Ending War”
    Vol 6, “Writing the Truth”

    Damn, I feel like I just opened a chain letter that curses you…LOL!

    1. I think there are actually 10 volumes, so that’ll fill up a good bit of your bookcase. I’m going to pick up Volume 2 sometime in the next week or two, and if it’s as good as the first, I’ll probably look into getting the whole set.

      It’s absolutely the best book I’ve ever read about Japan, because it really shows the way people interact with one another, without the usual facade. Make no mistake though, it’s a heavy read.

      1. 10 Volumes (Complete) (Shueisha 1973)
        5 Volumes (Complete) (Shueisha 1977)
        10 Volumes (Complete) (Choubunsha 1984, 1988, 1993)
        7 Volumes (Complete) (Chuokoron-Shinsha 1998)

        The newest version seems to be 7 volumes long. It’s pretty much the same content in length, just arranged differently (more or less chapters per volume). So it really depends what you get, but 7 seems to be the newest publication, but you can’t be sure.

        1. Well, I guess if rearranging the pages helps to sell more books, then that’s a good thing. And maybe the newer version provides a happy ending. Kind of like the moon landing, where it never really happened.

  3. Dear Seeroi San,

    I wonder how many realize today is Pearl Harbor Day, or, for that matter, how many people even know what Pearl Harbor Day was.

    Best wishes,


    1. Yeah, I wondered if anybody would notice the timing (which was, in fact, coincidental).

      I watched a special on Pearl Harbor on Japanese TV yesterday, so perhaps the Japanese haven’t forgotten. As for Americans, well probably the Hawaiians remember.

  4. This was the third December 7 I’ve spent in Japan. It’s such a weird mix of pleasure and thinking of history. I often wonder what the old timers remember/think about WWII. The oral historians must have their hands and ears full. I’ve really enjoyed your blog. Thank you for the humor and insight.

  5. Ack – I don’t mean pleasure in regard to Dec. 7, but a pleasure to be living in Japan. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the wonder of Japan and the atrocities of the war. It’s been an incredible experience living here.

    1. War’s a pretty hard concept to wrap your head around, at least in retrospect. Anytime you walk out your door with the intent of killing masses of people, you kind of gotta pause. I know I do. And then afterwards, everybody’s all friendly and it’s like, What were we fighting about anyway? Silly human nature.

      So yeah, humans are capable of some pretty atrocious stuff, given the right circumstances. Even the Japanese. Like, I love Rilakkuma. He’s so adorable, lounging around all snuggled up in his blankie with that cute Afroken dog—but if you tried to steal his pancakes, he’d kill you in a heartbeat. Best not to forget that.

  6. I think I’ve seen an anime based on the book. It was pretty grim, though the ending was somehow optimistic. I wonder if it’s the same with the book..

    1. I’ve never seen the anime, but the book, well, perhaps the best thing one could say about the ending is that at least the worst is behind them. Basically, after you’ve been nuclear-bombed, it’s pretty hard to go anywhere but up.

      1. “Basically, after you’ve been nuclear-bombed, it’s pretty hard to go anywhere but up.”

        Well yeah, except for the post-bombing suffering and mass die-offs from mortal injuries, famine, radiation sickness, cholera and other diseases, exposure from lack of shelter, the violence of desperation and looting, birth defects, etc. Once all the smoke clears from these, say, after a generation or so, then I guess things might start looking up.

  7. Good post as usual, I will try to get the books somehow. I have seen the anime quite recently, the moment of the bombing and its representation is terrifying and incredibly cold blooded, it had to be like that; the aftermath is equally desperating for all the characters that appeared in the movie.

    The anime is truly impressive in picturing life at that time; thanks for this post, this manga will sure make a good add to my library.

    1. Yeah, I do think it’s a good add for anybody interested in Japan or the language. I’m actually surprised and a bit disappointed that nobody ever recommended it to me, which I guess is why I wrote this post.

  8. Funny thing, yesterday China announced that they had successfully retrofitted their 11,000 mile nuclear missile to be used in their new fleet of nuclear submarines. BTW, these missiles now give China (for the first time) a nuclear deterrent that can not be rendered useless by a first strike capability. So for the first time, China is as MAD (Mutually assured destruction) capable as the United States and Russia.

    NOTICE: China announced on the anniversary of the most infamous first strike against America in modern history (Pearl Harbor day), that they no longer have to worry about the threat from a first strike from the USA; that’s so like what Sun Tsu would have done according to “The Art of War”. Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and the rest of southeast Asia should be VERY worried now that the USA’s economy and military have finally been eclipsed by China, now under the leadership of an ever-growing hard line government.

    So, Japan still laments the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and doesn’t have a real military and their people fervently despise nuclear power, all while the N. Koreans and Chinese are embracing nuclear weapons and using them to intimidate their neighbors. As American resolve to defend Japan wanes, the Japanese are still engaged in WWII revisionist propaganda (the Japanese love to forget about the 20-30 million Asians they slaughtered in WWII) and anti-american rhetoric in their education system (and entertainment industry), so they must be planning to roll over and play dead when China starts taking those islands near Okinawa and controlling the energy development, shipping and fishing in the East China Seas, hmmmm.

    1. Yes, hmmmmm indeed; or as the Japanese would say ararara. Lots of stuff going on all over the world, only now with more undersea nuclear missiles. Perhaps the time’s right to apply for that job at the research station on the South Pole. A little fresh air and snow for a change.

      1. Oddly enough, I have a surprise for you. I’m a grandfather now, but you would have learned that if you had read what I wrote on Zooming. Here’s the real surprise ararara: my son went and named his newborn son Ken. He did know of your website and how I kept telling him how brilliant you were, so maybe he thought you had good Karma. Nevertheless, he won’t tell me why he chose Ken, but there you have it; you might have subliminally garnered a new namesake. BTW, he’s a healthy 8 lb. plus boy, born on December 5th and he’s real cute with dimples on both cheeks and his chin. NOW, YOU Don’t forget to go fight, win and Populate too Ken!

      2. A new movie about Japanese torture of WWII prisoners, called “Unbroken” (directed by Angelina Jolie) is a story about a 1936 Olympian, Louis Zamperini that fought in WWII and survived 46 days at sea adrift and 4 years in a Japanese POW camp. Louis Zamperini died just a few months ago and now that he’s dead, the Japanese critics of this film have already started attacking it even before its release:

        Hiromichi Moteki, of the Japanese nationalist group Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, calls some of the claims of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book about Zamperini — and by extension the film — “pure fabrication.”

        “If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims,” Moteki told the UK’s Telegraph. ”This movie has no credibility and is immoral.”

        This is typical of the revisionist attitudes of many Japanese historians and intellectuals; Miyavi Ishihara, the Japanese rock star that plays the man that tortures the Olympian in the movie was initially afraid to act this part for fear of retribution that could be taken against him.

        About the book, “Barefoot Gen”, now that I have read the first book and remembered seeing the anime a few years ago: I sincerely hope that a nuclear weapon will never be used against human beings again (though there is mounting evidence that hope is fast becoming a long shot). “Barefoot Gen” started out as a condemnation of the militarist in Japan, and morphed over the years into an anti US/ antiwar/ anti-nuclear power rallying cry and was necessarily turned into a cottage industry by its author, Keiji Nakazawa because he found that as a “hibakusha” (Atomic bomb survivor), he was discriminated against by his own people who shunned him and often refused those survivors employment or benefits of any kind. Even as recently as 2013, Nakazawa’s books were banned from some school systems in Japan because they openly talked about atrocities that the Japanese soldiers had committed.

        I’m just as convinced that those hundreds of thousands that died from fire-bombing, both in Dresden Germany and Tokyo Japan (as well as other cities), suffered just as horribly as those from the nuclear bombs, but all those atrocities still pale in comparison to the 60-70 million people that died under the hands of the Nazis and Imperial Japanese soldiers during WWII (and 30-40 million killed by Stalin and 60-70 million killed by Mao during and after the war) under equally horrific circumstances. Sometimes it is necessary to take the lives of such fanatics that are willing to kill others for their ideology, religion or tribal association (Fascists, Militarists, Communists, the Hutu and Tutsi or Shia and Sunni, Jihadists, ad infinitum) and it is a sad and unfortunate fact that often the loss of innocent lives cannot be avoided when defending and protecting the freedom and human rights of others from such maniacal murderers.

        But that doesn’t mean we should ever accept those losses as unavoidable and we should take measures to stop genocidal and suicidal attacks at their root causes, before they have a chance to enact their evil deeds. It is my belief that any religion or ideology that deems it allowable to kill others in the name of said religion or because a person has converted from one religion to another religion (apostasy) should not be allowed to exist and humanity must obligate itself to stamping out these beliefs and religions to ensure that they cannot exist. For example: all tenets of Islam or Judaism that call for the killing of apostates or waging Jihad against infidels should be outlawed and removed from any religious materials in any nation that joins the UN.

        These religions that won’t remove these tenets should not be treated as a legally recognized entities or allowed to organize, meet, buy property, have tax exempt status or be allowed to participate in any public venue in any country that has UN membership. They should not be allowed to hold political offices or be a part of any government allowed into the UN either. The same should be done for any country ruled by a religious or ideological leadership, such that genocidal attacks on any race, creed, color or religion within or outside its borders should be promptly condemned and acted upon by the UN to isolate that country from all other nations and provide aid to the oppressed peoples. In extreme cases, military intervention/ peace keeping troops should intervene and prevent further actions of such rogue states from continuing such oppressive and genocidal actions from being taken. If no other action works to stop these attacks, then the UN should provide a military co-op force that would seek to change the government of said state by any force necessary.

        Whew, that was once huge soap box and I think “Barefoot Gen” was responsible for cooking up my ideological and creative juices, so thanks Ken for pointing that out to me. OK, I really want to know if the Japanese in these modern days and times still hit and slap each other so much, like what was portrayed in Nakazawa’s book. It was almost like a three stooge’s comedy of violence.

        1. If anyone has been to the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, you have the opportunity to read the letters from the United States and information behind the bombing. There were 2 different types of bombs dropped, it was a newly developed technology that hadn’t been properly tested and reviewed. They chose Japan over Germany to bomb due to it being surrounded by water and they were concerned that the Germans could retrieve the bombs and reverse the technology, if the bomb didn’t detonate. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mostly chosen due to weather conditions. They were not sure the bombs would even work but the government had invested tons of money and wanted results from the developers. The mayor of Hiroshima has written a letter every year to countries that house nuclear technology to remind them of the atrocities that come from nuclear bombs, and even worse the effects there after.

          Ken. This link is for you. You should incorporate this book into your English teaching.

          It is important that we all educate ourselves on all sides of any issue and constantly test what we believe to be true. People can continue to bicker over who started what, or who was more in the wrong, but what is most important that we learn from the events of the past and work together to try to prevent these atrocities from happening again.

          1. I agree in principle Chad and thank you for those sentiments. BUT, I don’t think that people have learned from the events of the past. I understand that they don’t teach many of those things you mentioned at the Hiroshima Memorial Museum (about the events preceding the use of the atomic bombs) in Japanese schools. How can people learn from the events of the past, when the past is deliberately omitted, covered up or denied by a revisionist ideology and policy enacted by the Japanese government that regulates the education system. You are correct that “we all (should) educate ourselves on all sides of any issue and constantly test what we believe to be true”, but not all people have that luxury or ability and it is the duty of those that can understand those things to help educate others. Thank you for being such a decent HUMAN BEING Chad!

            Loved the video too, very “Fing” funny…LOL!

        2. I think I used up my monthly bandwidth allotment just reading your comment, Bud. So I’ll just add that the story of Louis Zamperini is truly amazing. Don’t know if the movie is any good, but it’s certainly worth learning a bit about his life.

  9. Hey Ken, this is completely unrelated to Japanese language and Japan (shocking, I know): I have a gift code for Witcher 2 (a fantastic CRPG) redeemable on Would you like it?

    1. You know, honestly, that’s a really awesome offer, but right now I’m not gonna have time to utilize it. I’ve had a lot of stuff going on recently, with “recently” defined as “since I moved to Japan.” And unfortunately, this place doesn’t seem to be slowing down any. Except perhaps economically, which just makes it all the busier for people working here. So thanks anyway.

      1. Heh, I totally understand that. I also hardly have time for gaming these days, hence I have a backlog of over 100 games! Well, if you change your mind, just give me a shout. 🙂

  10. Wifey said they show them the anime in school when theyre kids. Its freaks them all out cause theyre the same age as Gen! Skin melting and hair falling out – and it gets worse from there. Its like some kind of group catharsis with kids crying everywhere. We tried to watch it a few years ago but she couldnt get through the first episode.

    She reckons theres a parallel with Nauscia, like the bugs are symbols for nukes

  11. A new post! Yay! Thanks for the warning about Barefoot Gen. I’m having second thoughts of reading it. But I do really want to know more about Japanese culture, so I don’t know…..

    1. Well, if you have any trepidations about reading it, you probably shouldn’t. It’s heaaaavy.

      On the other hand, it’s one of the few honest books I’ve ever read about Japan. Both Japanese and foreign people seem to focus on the extremes of the nation. Japan’s either a hilarious, neon-lit nation of the future, or a place where the population suffers in silence, working 70 hour weeks while living below the poverty line. It’s hard to get a clear picture—even living here—of what the nation’s really like, and how people interact with one another.

      This book provides that. And for that reason, it’s a Ken Seeroi Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

      1. That sounds similar, but having read the description, I don’t believe the two are directly related. Still, it looks like a film worth seeing.

        What I found most interesting about Hadashi no Gen wasn’t really the depictions of the war and post-war, but rather the way Japanese people interact with one another. That’s something entirely whitewashed in recent media, and it’s good to see someone showing the reality.

    1. Seriously. It’s like the world’s most time-consuming hobby. But at least it’s useful, right? I mean, you can use it in so many countries. Let’s count: One. Okay, that’s about it. But at least everybody in Japan is enthusiastic about language learning. At least that’s good. Assuming the language is English, of course. Well, next life, I learn Spanish.

  12. Dunno about this book, but there was one thing that always felt strange to me: While in Japan the atomic bombing are in no way forgotten, these events always seemed to be almost completely disconnected from the events that lead to it. Or at least they were portrayed that way.

    See, everyone was happily living ever after, and then suddenly these bombs fell out of the sky. A real tragedy…

    And I am in no way taking any side in whether what was justified, what would happened if operation downfall would have been executed…

    it’s just this disconnection that I found strange. Such a book exists in Japan and is widely read – and that’s good. But it’s just portraying the effect and not the cause. I do not criticize _this_ book for it, but I do find it odd that other are not that widely read by every Japanese.

    1. Actually, “Hadashi no Gen” bridges that disconnect, because before the bombs fall, it’s clear that everything is not okay in Japan. I think that misconception is just from the foreign side. Japanese people are well aware that their country was screwed up before the bombs finally ended the war.

      1. I’m not so sure that it bridges the disconnect. There is a difference between the Japanese people being aware of things being screwed up in their country back in WWII and admitting wrong-doing for crimes against humanity that led to use of the Atomic Bomb; they never put into their textbooks or explain in schools that there were 20+ million people killed by the militarists from 1931 to 1945. The Japanese revisionist historians go too far and try to ignore or excuse or even outright deny that the Japanese people, under the leadership of the militarists did anything that justified use of the first atomic bombs. They’ve turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into a cause celeb to blame the US as the ultimate aggressors and attempt to blame the US for starting WWII, saying that the US forced Japan to defend herself and thus attack Pearl Harbor. They also blatantly forget about Japan’s attacks into Manchuria in 1931 that caused the US to spurn Japan and then enact restrictions on trade with Nippon industry that they said eventually led to Japan’s attacking the US (because it hampered their war or conquest in China).

        “Hadashi no Gen” was an honest piece of literature that only slightly exaggerated instances to more accurately portray a significant historical event. It’s what happened after that, that made “Barefoot Gen” into a piece of revisionist history: when they began to use this book and anime and live action movie to traumatize young children in school and then use it as an example of how horrible America really is as a country, ignoring the facts that led to its use or the misunderstanding by the American politicians and military leaders had in regard to the damage radiation would have on living organisms. They also seem to forget to teach in school that the US was responsible for rebuilding Japan into an economic powerhouse and giving it a strong constitution and then defending Japan for some 70 years.

        The fact remains that the atomic bombs did end the war quickly; thus saving many lives that would have been lost and it woke up the Japanese leaders and forced them to admit the defeat of militarist policies. It also destroyed the militarist’s plans of using the entire nation as suicidal sacrifices to save their demented sense of honor. This became completely evident after the classified documents from WWII were released in 1995 where captured Japanese documents showed that they planned to use the entire population as suicide waves against American troop landings on the main islands ( I have seen these documents myself), yet the revisionist historians of Japan seem to ignore this.

        The Japanese actor that plays the Imperial Army officer in the “Unbroken” movie said that he was unaware that American POWs were mistreated in WWII as Louis Zamperini described in his memoirs, so he obviously wasn’t told the whole story in school as he was growing up. I think that is typical of how Japan has tried to cover-up their responsibility for WWII (like they also did in regards to how they abused Koreans) and use revisionist tactics to deny any culpability under the guise of re-evalutaing history. The fact that they ban “Hadashi no Gen” from many school districts in Japan BECAUSE it talks of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers is a perfect example of that.

      2. Judging from the movie Hadashi no Gen is both anti-America and anti-Japan. It criticizes people who want to sweep things under the rug.

  13. It’s a good read for sure, though I hope you don’t just knock One Piece off because of the massive popularity in Japan.

    In a sea of awful shonen series nowadays, many of which are popular in the west, it’s definitely one of the more creative, enjoyable and surprisingly better written series out there with a great main cast. It’s worth giving a fair shot, especially since it’s so lengthy yet easy to get into and steadily picks up after you start

    1. Well said. I’ll give it another look. Wish the characters didn’t all look so zany, but maybe I just need to get over that.

  14. …if some of you talk about politics; I remember in the Hiroshima memorial to read that Nagasaki never was in the list but then decided for the weather etc BUT and started to think regarding that list; Tokyo (where the politics and power reside) did not made the list…and that s the path that you should follow in your thoughts…I mean, normal people were/are always cannon fodder not the powerful. If they dropped the bomb on the palace and or other places would be power vs power (but they really did not wanted that)

  15. Your post really makes me want to read the book! I’m scared about the pictures though but I don’t understand how drawings can be so scary? Is that so awful? I’ve never dared to look at real photos taken after Hiroshima, I’ve seen the movie “kuroi ame” and think it was terrible but do you think I won’t be able to handle this manga’s graphic?

  16. After biting the “one-eighth of my money for the month” bullet buying Kanji ABC, I couldn’t resist heading back to Amazon and ordering a copy of Hadashi no Gen too.
    October looks set to be a month of leftovers from my folks’ fridge and instant ramen at this rate.
    Thanks for the recommendation, Ken! Looking forward to getting the rest of the series over the next few months when I can afford to pick up the next volume one by one.
    Got a beer coming your way soon as I get paid!

    1. Hadashi no Gen is a serious book, eye opening, and well worth the read. Particularly considering the recent situation surrounding North Korea. I wish everybody in the world would read it.

      PS. Good luck with your kanji studies!

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